Placher on Girard on Atonement

When it comes to re-thinking the doctrine of the Atonement, many contemporary Christians are attracted to the work of literary theorist Rene Girard and his account of the “scapegoat mechanism.” In Girard’s telling, what the crucifixion narratives in the gospels do is reveal this mechanism whereby we kill the innocent to create social peace as the basis of much of our religion and culture. This unmasking of the scapegoat mechanism allows us to perceive the innocence of victims and to put an end to scapegoating. Part of what appeals about Girard’s account is that it seems to offer a way of thinking about the cross that avoids the implication that God in any sense required the sacrifice of Jesus.

However, the late William Placher, in an important article on the Atonement, offered some criticisms of Girard that still seem pretty telling to me:

Christians will naturally find such a brilliant scholar’s admiration of the gospel flattering, and Girard gets much right from a Christian point of view, from his insistence on the innocence of ritual victims to his call for a new kind of society based on mutual forgiveness. Yet he also breaks radically with most Christian interpretations. He repeatedly insists that nothing in the Gospels or Paul permits us to think of Christ as a sacrifice. The letter to the Hebrews, he believes, began the tragic wrong turn of Christian theology, for it falls back into thinking that it was somehow a good thing that Christ died, that the sacrifice of one victim really can redeem others—-just the kind of thinking whose fraudulence the gospel ought to have exposed once and for all. As a result, Girard thinks, Christians have continued the kind of society in which social cohesion is based on finding scapegoats—most notably and tragically of all singling out Jews as “Christ killers.”

But does Girard provide us with the kind of forgiveness that we really need? He assumes that once the Gospels have helped us see scapegoating for the fraud that it is we will never again participate in its rituals or believe in its myths. And he does not consider that we might retain some guilt and owe some penance for our evil past actions, even after we have turned away from scapegoating. He seems to assume that once we have understood the problem properly, it practically fixes itself.

The dominant Christian tradition has been less optimistic. At least since Augustine, Christian theologians have insisted that recognizing sin’s evil does not necessarily end its seductiveness; sometimes it can even increase it. Moreover, even if we do not continue making scapegoats and sacrificing victims, we have all, as Girard himself emphasizes, been complicit in such practices for much of our lives. Culture and religion in all previous forms rest upon them. Is it enough to say, “Oh, now I get it, and I won’t do it any more,” and go our way? Perhaps we can forgive other victimizers, and for the sake of breaking the cycle of violence we should forgive them. But can we simply declare ourselves to be innocent? Whatever its problems, the language of sacrifice which so disturbs Girard does speak to the condition of people who find themselves still falling into sin, and sense the depths of their need of forgiveness. Perhaps it deserves a closer look.

I think a lot of the truth in traditional theories of atonement–however much we may want to qualify or reinterpret them–is that there is a profound alienation between humanity and God and that simply revealing the fact of sin is insufficient to overcome it. This has always been the most potent criticism of “moral example” theories of atonement, and Girard’s theory as it stands looks like a more sophisticated version of this type of theory. For the other dominant tradition in atonement theory–that of “satisfaction” or “vicarious atonement”–the alienation between humanity and God (and its attendant guilt) is not something that we can repair on our own, even once we see what the problem is. This is why it requires God to step into the breach. But because it is a problem of human alienation from God, it is something that must be healed through human nature. Hence, following St. Anselm’s logic, the need for the God-man.

13 thoughts on “Placher on Girard on Atonement

  1. That’s a wonderful article, Lee. I was interested in Girard, too, and you are right: partly because it was good to see an academic praise Christianity! But – in addition to the problems mentioned here, there’s another one (which Girard himself is starting to recognize): if you take his theory to its logical conclusion, you get a whopper of a contradiction! That is, once Christianity takes away the scapegoating option, mimetic tensions (which operate on the unconscious level, after all) will actually increase in the community. So at the very moment Christianity renders itself obsolete, it becomes more necessary than ever. He thinks Christianity will be victorious in defeat, in (from what I can tell so far) a sort of apocalyptic way – but of course, that’s not a defeat at all, but a Christian idea!

    And thanks for linking to my recent rants….er….posts. 😉

  2. I have so many questions about atibement. Even if Jesus died for us, as in satisfaction, nothing is really different: we’re still the same kind of creature that makes the same mistakes. If his dying doesn’t change us, what does it change? And I’m not sure why it’s our fault that we’re the kind of things that make those mistakes, that are alienated from God – is it really possible for us to be different than we are, is what’s “wrong” with us not a design flaw? And would Jesus dying of natural causes later in life instead of being murdered make a difference – would he not still have been resurected, isn’t the important thing not that he died but that he didn’t stay dead? Sorry – too many questions 🙂

  3. Well, don’t forget: the Bible does answer all those questions, in Genesis, with “the fall.” People were once, apparently, innocent and naked: airheads in the Garden. But then we ate the fruit – from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil – and we became real, instead. Maybe before that, we were unconcerned about the nature of reality, but then we grew up?

    Jesus actually answers this question, too, but a different way. We’re not blind because of the sins of our parents – but in order to show forth the glory of God as we are healed. (Not made perfect: healed. Brought into relationship with God, that is, as the inner person heals and grows, while the outer person withers away. That’s Paul’s take.)

    Take yer pick! 😉

    And yes, Jesus would have died, eventually, anyway, since he had a mortal body…..

  4. Thanks, bls 🙂

    Yes, Genesis, but that seems to be an unhelpful story in the sense that given what we know of evolution and genetics, a place like Eden, where two human parents and all other creatures lived in peace and innocence, never really existed – we had nothing to “fall” from.

    I do like the idea of Jesus as glorifying/revealing God, though I’m not so in love with the idea of the blind being object lessons for others.

    One article that kind of makes sens of this all to me is Ken Overberg’s …

  5. Well, I think “the Garden” is just a metaphor for “a mind undisturbed by complex thoughts about morality”! 😉

    No, seriously, it does work, maybe especially well when you consider evolution. Once we were apes, after all, and had no thought about “how we should live” or “what we should do.” We just ate and had sex and slept and groomed one another. But one fine day, after this particular amino acid got written into the genome in that particular place – well, we started to have an awareness of “how we best should live.” That’s Paradise Lost, right there. Adam and Eve seem to me particularly colorless characters; the story of the Garden freaks me out a little bit, to be honest. I like Judges a lot better.


    And I think generally the healings represent all of us, in fact, and whatever infirmities we each are afflicted with; we are all messed up in some way.

    Thanks for the link – will check it out!

  6. Lee

    It’s worth noting that there’s a kind of alternative to the standard Augustinian view of original sin that seems consistent with what bls is saying. On Augustine’s view, humanity was perfect before the Fall–kind of superhuman really. But as a result of the Fall, we not only are mired in sin and ignorance, but we also merit all the punishment God can dish out.

    By contrast, the tradition associated with St. Irenaeus holds that prior to the Fall we were more like children and that had things gone according to plan, God would’ve guided us into responsible maturity. Unfortunately things didn’t go according to plan–for Irenaeus, the Fall is more like us getting off track than a catstrophic drop from a state of perfection. So what God does in the Incarnation is to get humanity “back on track” so to speak, by “recapitulating” human life as it was meant to be lived.

  7. Pingback: More thoughts on Girard, Atonement, and Christology | A Thinking Reed

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